Writing a belated review is a very different animal than composing something at the height of a zeitgeist. Odds are that you have read a good deal about Spectre by now, as have I. As such, our views may be as colored by other reviewer’s opinions as much as by our own reactions to the movie itself. A good writer should make you think about things that you may have overlooked, after all.
So I think it’s fair to say that Spectre is everything you’ve already read that it is – an extension of SkyFall, a capstone that ties together Daniel Craig’s previous three outings as a “blunt instrument” in service of the crown, and a more “classic” Bond adventure. At worst, you can say it falls prey to the Marvel-ization of movies, shoehorning a retcon of a plot onto movies that didn’t need such needless complication.
It’s also better than it has any right to be.
Is the serializing of Craig’s oeuvre really necessary? No, but it’s serviceable to move along the plot here.
Is the plot “twist” cynically transparent? Sadly, yes.
Does this movie really need to be two-and-a-half damn hours long? Oh, no. Not at all.
Is it somewhat refreshing to watch a film refrain from inundating you with spectacle porn in 10-minute intervals? Yes it is.
To be clear, this all could have been a complete disaster. Without Sam Mendes at the helm, I think it probably would have been. There is just too much going on here (including a side-plot featuring Ralph Fiennes’ M that could have been wholly excised from movie to the benefit of everyone involved) to form coherency. And yet…Mendes pulls enough plot strands together to keep this narrative mess out of the fire. As stated earlier, the main plot wraps together 007’s adventures since 2006’s Casino Royale, but the only thing you really need to know is that bad things have happened to James Bond and it leads to one person (Mendes wisely doesn’t linger too long on Vesper Lynd, Silva, or Quantum). Bond gets in trouble, exotic locations are visited, Bond shoots people, big things go bang, Bond sleeps with a briefly-introduced and quickly-discarded beauty…stop me if you’ve heard this all before. It is only the strength of Craig’s performance – he’s quite comfortable in those tight suits these days – and Mendes’ direction that carries the morass.
Part of the problem is that we all know that Bond is going to survive every movie. The 00-program (ever in peril of cancellation as of late) will continue on. The bad guy won’t win. So why does Spectre feel somewhat hollow, anyways? Because of the movie that preceded it. What gave SkyFall teeth was that there were genuinely big stakes involved; a major character dies, and it is Bond’s failure that he can’t save them (mirroring that very character’s many failings). It would have been impossible for Spectre to try to repeat such an important plot point, but it’s also true that it simply can’t outrun the shadow the previous movie casts. Important things happened in SkyFall; expected things (by virtue of the title of the film) occur in Spectre. The difference is between a movie that transcended its source material to become something great, and a movie that stays respectfully in the confines of its genre purview. The ultimate Sam Mendes-helmed Bond was released in 2012; it’s hard to be the runner-up.
Credit all involved, though, for trying like hell to push this movie onto a podium of any sort. Even if the plot is a bit crackers-and-shampoo silly, it ends up working – albeit only just. The soundtrack sounds wholly lifted from SkyFall, but the score works for this material. The supporting performances are strong across the board, much needed in the team effort to carry a fairly dross-y concept. Naomie Harris and Ben Whishaw are grand additions to old roles, Monica Bellucci makes the most of an under-written role, and while Ralph Fiennes may be part of a useless subplot, at least he doesn’t act that way. Léa Seydoux manages a precarious balance; yes, she’s a glamorous “Bond girl,” but 007 needs her far more than she needs him (for the most part).
All of that would add up to wonderful ingredients mixed into the equivalent of a fast-food burrito, but there is one final thing Spectre has going for it – stunning, high-concept cinematography. Truly, what Hoyte Van Hoytema has framed for Mendes’ lens and Lee Smith’s editing is nothing short of astonishing. There is a near ever-present patina of dusty cover in many scenes, but it’s never distracting. It’s merely the fingerprint of those behind the camera. More importantly, this is a movie that tells a completely different, yet wholly related, visual story alongside the written plot. Outside of an action-packed introduction, this film lives in achingly-composed, starkly-shadowed silhouettes for its first act. The second act switches the palette; once our heroes get an inkling of what they’re up against, they’re revealed in brighter colors. The dark silhouettes then jarringly reappear, followed briefly by the brightest scene in the film (close to a near-death experience for 007), before finally resolving back into shadow for the third-act finale. Film nerds will have a field day with this for years to come.
If the actual plot was as compelling as the visual journey, this would rank alongside the very best of the Bond canon. However, there are far worse places to be than in the shadow of SkyFall.